John Clute

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 781

Here is a mistake from Fritz Leiber, though it warms the heart. Our Lady of Darkness is a mistake of displacement. Whatever one reads of Leiber, in whatever genre he presents to us his skill and touch, the implied author (the author visible in the text, all we have a right to know) who speaks to one seems to exhale a kind of shy sacrificial gravitas, however garish or commercial the story he's telling happens to be. It somehow seems brave for an adult person like Fritz Leiber to expose himself without condescension or disguise to a readership comprised of people like us—young, claquish, aggressive, intrusive, we tend to demand complicity of our authors, and to punish those who turn a blank face, or (like Silverberg) a mask of anguish. Perhaps anguish comes too close to the foul rag and bone shop to be amenable to claims of complicity. And perhaps Leiber was after all right, in Our Lady of Darkness, to avoid telling the tale of anguish and mourning that lies palpably at the heart of its inspiration, and instead to displace that story into a routine tale of externalized haunting, even though injected with elements of an sf rationale, a good deal of social realism scarifyingly illuminating about life in California now (and in our future soon enough), and some interesting speculative musing about what the modern world-city may be beginning to do to us. (p. 64)

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[The] implied author of Our Lady of Darkness sounds singularly ill-at-ease in his efforts to present to us the story he does as though it were the real story. Thin ice does seem to bring out the jocosity in the best of us … And matters are not made any better when one realizes that the protagonist of the novel, whose name is Franz Westen, patently stands in as a kind of pun, whether or not a lying one, for the author himself…. As the novel opens, he has apparently been comfortably rein-stated in human society for some months after a three year period of drunkenness that followed the gruesome death of his wife by brain cancer. Franz Westen is all right now, you bet, as he seems to tell us, and as the implied author of the book insists in words that grin. But what reader is going to believe that? It sounds like a classic opening to a novel whose subject lies in the examination of forms of intolerable suffering. After ten pages, the reader is bracing himself for a descent into the Hell indoors, and each time the text protests that Hell is somewhere in the past the reader recognizes a conventional ploy. (pp. 64-5)

[Leiber makes] some attempt to relate the external haunting that comprises the ostensible subject of the book (and most of its bulk) to an interior story of insecurely managed grief; the connection of wife to Scholar's Mistress to Noseless Whatsit, though made little of, comprises the real line of power and esemplasy in the novel. But what Leiber has done with this line of potency, however, is to reverse its thrust; the dead wife serves to illustrate and add resonance to the tale of a haunting, not the reverse, and it is precisely here that the displacement can be identified as having taken place. Reverse the thrust at this point, and the emotional force, the edgy sombreness, the sense of walking on eggshells that permeates the novel begins to come clear, and the discursive yakking about the fatuous de Castries and crew comes to read as a sequence of desperate manoeuvrings away from the real trauma, the real horror. But one can only reverse the thrust abstractly, like this, after a selective synopsis: the novel itself resists this reversal strenuously and, to our loss, successfully.

So one reads Fritz Leiber—exuding the decency and gravitas he does exude in his texts—as telling a kind of fib, grimacing a little, dragging in Lovecraft Sauce and C. A. Smith and Lord help us Ambrose Bierce to protest too much along beside him, and one wonders what it was, what caused this forgivable treason. Perhaps it was only a marketing decision. Crap about paramental dingbats fits genre expectations; the dark night of the soul, on the other hand, is death on the stalls. And Fritz Leiber has to live. In some ways he's produced a pretty effective tale. But the face of the implied author stares at one from within the text, and I'm afraid I read that face as confessing all, and I thanked it. (pp. 65-6)

John Clute, "Reviews: 'Our Lady of Darkness'," in Foundation (copyright © 1978 by the Science Fiction Foundation), No. 14, September, 1978, pp. 64-6.

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